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Conjuring Up a Low-Cost Reader

ThingMagic, a small technology services, firm has built a prototype for the first low-cost, networkable RFID reader to scan electronic product codes.
Jun 03, 2002—June 3, 2002 - Everyone talks about the cost of RFID tags. The market will only take off, the experts say, when tags get down to 5 cents. Very few people talk about the cost of RFID readers. But if radio frequency identification is ever going to replace bar codes, then readers are going to have to be cheap. The Auto-ID Center's goal is about $100 when produced in significant volumes.

ThingMagic's Schoner
To make that possible, the center turned to a small technology services firm based in Cambridge, Mass, called ThingMagic. The company was founded in 2000 by five graduates of MIT. The founders have a few things in common. They are brilliant engineers. They all did work at MIT's famed Media Lab. And they all see a future in which devices, appliances and everyday objects will be designed with embedded intelligence.

"We are at the very edge of the networked world, where the atoms become part of the network," says Bernd Schoner, managing partner at ThingMagic. "The company develops intelligent devices that are inexpensive and can be deployed in large quantities."

RFID has been a primary area of the company's research because it fits ThingMagic's general focus and because all of the founders had a lot of exposure to RFID as part of their academic research. And RFID is often the most effective way to add intelligence to objects cheaply.

About a year ago, the company was approached by the Auto-ID Center to design a novel reader that would read tags at more than one frequency using open protocols. Schoner and his team went to work in their lab and cooked up a new agile reader that can read tags at 900 MHz (ultra high frequency) and 13.56 MHz (high frequency).

RFID readers communicate with tags by sending out electromagnetic waves. When the waves from the reader's antenna hit the coiled antenna of the passive RFID tag, it creates a magnetic field. The passive tag (one with no battery to power the circuits) draws enough electricity from the field to run the circuitry and send information stored on the tag's microchip back to the reader.

Other companies have been able to create multi-frequency readers by essentially putting two readers into the same box. ThingMagic has achieved a high degree of integration on the analog front end. It uses one digital signal processor from Texas Instruments to convert the analog signals at both frequencies. "They key is to do as much as possible in the digital domain because you can use the same hardware across the different bands," says Schoner.
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